Tom Sutcliffe: The patient is fine, thanks


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The Independent Online

If you've worked for The Independent since its launch, as I have, there's one question you'll have heard more often than any other when talking about the title with outsiders. "How's the paper doing?" they all ask. I don't think there's been a single year in the paper's history that I haven't had that question put to me – in a variety of tones ranging from the congratulatory curiosity that greets a new baby to the solicitousness of someone asking about a sick relative.

There were a few weeks, around the heady days when we overtook The Times in sales, when something like complacency about our future briefly hovered in the air. But it was quickly dispelled when Rupert Murdoch dropped his cover price and business as usual was resumed. We were in a market that was fiercely competitive and there could be no guarantees, least of all for a paper that had only had a few years in which to build a relationship with its readers.

To work on The Independent has been to live with perennial uncertainty – though I suspect that very fact turned out to be one of our assets. To say that we reshaped the British broadsheet isn't just a celebratory cliché. It's physical fact ... and it emerged from a creative understanding that we couldn't stand still.

I wonder what we would we have felt though – as we prepared the very first paper that would actually go on sale – if we'd been told that we'd still be around to worry a quarter of a century later? Back then we asked the question ceaselessly ourselves, inside the building. There were those who thought that the paper's approach to royal coverage (bad-tempered and rarely more than a paragraph long) was a self-indulgent eccentricity, others who argued that it was a badge of our independence from the done thing. There were arguments about the Westminster Lobby and about celebrity interviews and virtually every aspect of the coverage.

In fact this paper grew in part out of the negative answers journalists had come up with when they asked "How's the paper doing?" about their previous publications. And we questioned what we did so intently because we couldn't be sure that we would survive otherwise. Most people predicted that it was odds against.

I think we'd have been astounded and gratified to learn that we would be successful enough to survive until the anxiety that was then unique to us would become universal for all papers. Back then there wasn't much point in worrying about anything further than a year ahead, but even if we'd gone in for long-term planning I don't suppose anyone could have predicted that the technology which made our adventure possible – computers and the digital transmission of data – would eventually come to pose hard questions about the nature of newspapers themselves.

That's one lesson of this anniversary – that being around to worry (in life as well as newspapers) is a kind of privilege. In terms of the individual histories of some British newspapers 25 years is a relatively short time. In terms of our history it's everything. And in terms of the collective history of the industry it's been an eon. We fretted constantly about keeping the ship watertight. Now, along with everyone else, we have to think about the tide. So, "How's the paper doing?" It's in great shape, thank you, but we won't stop asking the question.

Pretending to know rather more than we did

This story has been told before, in Nicholas Garland's book about the paper's first year, Not Many Dead, but I think it bears repeating. During a very early conversation with Andreas Whittam Smith, The Independent's founding editor, about the organisation of the arts pages he suddenly asked me: "Do you think books should be a satrap of arts?" Not having a clue what a satrap was, I adopted an expression of what I hoped was pensive consideration while I tried to work out how to reply.

Eventually, after what was becoming too long a pause, I settled for something like this: "Well ... I think that rather follows from what you've been saying." Andreas frowned, also pensively, excused himself and left briefly to consult with Stephen Glover, who was just down the corridor trying to talk the poet James Fenton into joining the paper as a foreign correspondent.

When I met James later for a drink he explained that Andreas had put exactly the same question to them, following it, as he was on the point of leaving, with another: "By the way – what is a satrap?" "Persian provincial governor" they explained, which I'm sure Andreas had known all along, until he was infected by my own (obviously transparent) uncertainty.

I'm not sure you can draw a grand conclusion from this incident, except that there were times in those early days when all of us were feeling our way into what we were doing and that was one of the chief glories of it. And if Books did become a satrap of Arts, no practical consequence ever flowed from it. Given that our provincial governor was the novelist Sebastian Faulks, oversight didn't really turn out to be much of an issue.

The heady rush of that first taste of instant messaging

Talking with veterans of the early years I was amused to find a considerable amount of affection for Atex – the computer system first used to put the paper together. Fond memories centred on three things: the then novel ability to text-message colleagues – allowing a sub-current of gossip and commentary to flow beneath audible conversations (sometimes hazardously); the fact that you could alter the case of a letter with a single keystroke; and – more oddly – the button which allowed you to transpose two adjacent letters in a piece of copy. You really wouldn't believe that you could hang nostalgia on such a flimsy peg – but it was surprising how oftne it came in hnady.